When I wrote about my personal myth, I was combining three ideas that had independently attracted me: emergent phenomenon, etc.; tzimtzum and a weak/limited God creating order from chaos; inherent vice and information studies as a long defeat against entropy. After this I want to be able to talk about ethics, but as before I’m really combining what I’ve built up already with other insights (this time, ethical philosophy) and I think, in order to talk about that synthesis, I first have to introduce you to some of the ethical ideas I’ve been considering. This will thus be a bit of a detour, but hopefully it is more scenic route than summer construction.
If you’ve spoken with me about moral philosophy or seen my commenting on certain blogs, you might be familiar with my most recent former position on morality. For those who haven’t and for those who have forgotten, I’ll summarize that position below:
One of the following propositions is true: a) there are such things as objective moral facts, but we have no reliable way of knowing them with sufficient certainty; or b) a position called moral error theory is true and therefore there are no objective moral facts. Both handle equally well the evidence I have available to me. Lacking any objective metric to distinguish between the two, I lean toward the former position because the consequences of falsely rejecting it are worse than the consequences of falsely rejecting moral error theory and because, for me personally, it is easier to psychologically survive in a world of uncertain moral significance than in a world with no moral significance.
I bring this up because I have been changing my mind; specifically, I am now leaning more toward moral error theory, but with a twist.
What I want to do in this post is describe my new position, not defend it or explain how I got here. Defense and autobiography can come later if anyone seems to want them; right now, I just want to make sure you understand the position so we can move on to more interesting things.
Before I proceed, I should admit that I have not done the readings. My sources for moral error theory are, in order of importance, a friend henceforth known as Voltaire Panda who adopted the position before me and introduced me to it,1 the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), Ozy Frantz’s writing on the subject, the Wikipedia page, and various interlocutors on the Internet. The SEP’s page on “Moral Anti-Realism” has a very charming introduction but I won’t make any promises about how accessible it is for people who have little background in philosophy; I found its supplement on J L Mackie’s arguments for the moral error theory more readable but much less comprehensive. I have not read any of the articles linked in these documents, nor read any of Mackie’s books on the subject; neither have I read serious philosophical criticisms of the position. Therefore I’d like to mark this post as even more inexpert than usual and make the usual calls for well-considered correction and criticism.
My understanding of moral error theory, then, is as follows: there is no such thing as objective morality. Rather, morality is dependent on values which an individual may or may not hold; moreover, there are no values that a person ought to hold unconditionally. If I make a moral claim—Polygamy is wrong—and I believe that what I am saying is, “There is a property of polygamy which makes it unethical,” or, “Moral law forbids polygamy,” then the statement I’ve made is neither true nor false; it presupposes the existence of something (properties which make things unethical; moral laws) which don’t exist and so, like “The king of France is bald,” is neither true nor false. If I make a moral claim—Polygamy is wrong—and I believe that what I am saying is, “Polygamy violates my deeply-held values,” or, “Polygamy cannot be countenanced within the ethical system I have adopted,” then the statement I’ve made may well be true, but isn’t binding for anyone who doesn’t share my values or adhere to my ethical system.
Importantly, moral error theory does not suggest there is anything wrong with holding values, acting according to those values, or trying to get other people to live by those values. This is what distinguishes it for moral nihilism (in my limited and possibly idiosyncratic understanding of that term): in moral nihilism, the fact that objective morality doesn’t exist is reason to reject morality outright, whereas moral error theory notes that a person’s values are still inherently motivating even if they cannot be universalized and that, further, there can be no reason to say, “Don’t act according to your values.” After all, no imperative statement is unconditionally binding.
The obvious objection, I think, to me being a moral error theorist (rather than to Voltaire Panda being a moral error theorist) is that I am Christian. Certainly being both a Christian and a moral error theorist is an unusual position, but I think it’s a coherent one.
Voltaire Panda summarized a philosophical argument (though the last time I asked him about it he didn’t remember doing so) which observed that even the existence of God wouldn’t imply moral realism (ie. the idea that morality objectively exists). All the existence of God would produce another agent who has values about things. Those values do not thereby become universally binding. While both VP and the philosopher he summarized were defending moral error theory against hypothetical charges by theists, I will flip that line of argument around: even though moral realism cannot be proven (or, in my opinion, coherently articulated), all that shows is that God does not create universally-binding ethics, not that God doesn’t exist.2
Just because I’m leaning toward moral error theism—that’s what I’m calling this position, mostly because I like puns—doesn’t mean that I give myself license to ignore my religious moral tradition. If I declare myself a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ, then that’s still what I am, even if I no longer think that people are morally obliged to follow that same path. I still value having a relationship with God (however disordered that relationship may currently be); I still value the sorts of things I understand God to value (justice and mercy, protection and support for the disadvantaged and unlucky, forgiveness and non-judgement, collective responsibility for the natural world).
I’ll elaborate in another post about how this relates to the patterns-worldview I’m working out, but the Cole’s Notes version is that I consider God to be on the side of patterns, particularly but certainly not exclusively strange-loopy ones.
In the meantime, I just want to note that, so far as I can tell, this view is compatible with minimum Christian orthodoxy: nowhere does the Nicene (or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed mention morality, except that the “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God” shall “judge the quick and the dead,” and as I hope I’ve made clear you don’t need objective moral laws to make judgements. Nor, for that matter, does God need objective moral laws to call Creation good, nor to prefer mercy (or steadfast love, or goodness, depending on the translation) over burnt offerings.
I also want to distinguish this position from divine command theory. Divine command theory holds that objective moral laws exist because some divine force—God, the gods, whatnot—creates them. In other words, the right thing to do is what the gods tell you to do. First, philosophically, divine command theory and moral error theism differ because under divine command theory those who defy God or the gods are wrong to do so while in my view it is not wrong for me or anyone else to defy God, even though it might be against my values and God’s values. (Neither, for that matter, would it be right or morally permissible to defy God. Those are non-existent categories.) Second, more practically, I think you’ll find me far (far) more leftist than most divine command theorists. I find that the best (ie. most logically coherent, historically literate, and textually sound) Christianity matches my values better than any other system I’ve found, which is one of the reasons I’m Christian in the first place. However, unlike most divine command theorists, I’d probably defy God before I violated those values—but then, I don’t really think I’ll be asked to do so, because I’m more convinced that the God of Abraham and Jesus Christ shares my values than I am of said God’s existence.3 At any rate, I find the massacre of Jericho hard to swallow.
As I said, it is not my intention to defend moral error theory here—if I get push-back or inquiries, I’ll write another post—nor to explain precisely how I came to this position, but I can give you a few leads. First, I recognize myself imperfectly in two excerpts from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on moral anti-realism, linked above:
Perhaps she [a hypothetical moral error theorist] thinks that there exists no phenomenon whose explanation requires that the property of moral badness be instantiated, while thinking that explanatory redundancy is good ground for disbelief (Hinckfuss 1987).
Perhaps she is impressed by a number of little or medium-sized considerations against morality—none of which by itself would ground an error theory, but all of which together constitute sufficient grounds for skepticism.
Second, I am familiar with most deontological and consequentialist ethics and I’m trying to become familiar with virtue ethics, and all of these run aground at exactly the same point: they universalize concerns without giving any compelling reason to universalize them. For instance, Kant’s attempt to judge actions by universalizing them is, as far as I’m concerned, a non sequitur, as are standard utilitarian attempts to extend from my concerns about pleasure and pain to all people’s concerns about pleasure and pain. This is rather reliably the problem with ethical theories; it appears to me that all moral theories will likely fail in this same place if they don’t fail earlier.
Lastly, I’d like to note that as far as I’m concerned Do good so that you go to heaven, Do good so that you don’t go to hell, Do good so that you respect yourself, and Do good so that you are rewarded by your admiring peers are not in fact moral arguments at all but rather self-serving strategic ones. They do not indicate what sort of world you think would be best, though they do indicate what sort of world you think ours is. As such they are perfectly consistent and sensible ideas to hold, but as a matter of simple fact they are not forms of moral philosophy.
See my new series index!
- It’s not the first time, and likely it won’t be the last time, that I’ve mentioned this friend here. He is, for instance, the one mentioned in the Reliable, Therefore Real post. For the sake of painting a fairly consistent image of my real-life interlocutors but also allowing them some measure of anonymity, I’m going to use a system of pseudonyms of the format [dead person of letters] + [animal]. This system should be massively extensible, enough to cover any people who I might want to mention on multiple occasions.
- I’m talking about God existing for the sake of linguistic simplicity; theologically speaking, as I already discussed, God may not exist so much as create the conditions for existence.
- It’s somewhat more complicated than I’ve made out here, of course; specifically, I am open to religious challenge to my current moral beliefs, which isn’t obvious in this description. All that, however, would be off-topic. So long as nothing prevents me from continuing this series and so long as it unfolds as I imagine it will, I suspect you will see examples of this in time.